I had reached a turning point in my world travels. Europe was an itch I had scratched and my visit to Egypt and Jordan left me hungry for more ‘adventurous’ outings. How I decided upon Cuba is lost in time. The fact is I had always loved Cuban music, even though it had taken the Buena Vista Social Club soundtrack to confirm that for me. I had in fact pre-arranged a return visit to Paris. As luck would have it, Paris was indeed one of a handful of gateways into Havana.
Day 1 – Havana: After a pretty fabulous 4 days in Paris I leave for Havana. Some places in the world have definite tourist demographics. As far as I can tell from those on my flight, Cuba is visited by largely middle aged French and German tourists. Having arrived at Havana airport I immediately proceed to a currency exchange window and buy what sounds like a fortune in Cuban currency. It isn’t. Then a simple taxi ride to central Havana. I usually find airport-to-hotel taxi rides immensely tedious as they travel through the worst parts of town (Athens was the worst) but here in Havana I delighted in seeing the locals on the road amidst the palm trees. It reminds me of of growing up in Malaysia. Eventually we arrive at Hotel Nacional de Cuba, Havana’s iconic grand hotel. Through a third party website I managed to book a room at a very reasonable price. As such I am expecting a meagre room, probably their worst room. As I follow the porter down the plush corridor I get a tingle. What I eventually get is something resembling a suite, which has a stunning view of the Malecón and Havana.
It’s around dinner time but I make the decision to go straight to Paseo del prado, the main drag through Havana. Already I am excited at the sight of those amazing Cuban icons, the old American cars. As I reach the top of the main drag I am propositioned by two local girls within 5 minutes of each other. “Quiere una chica?” they ask. Such a loaded question. I politely decline and walk on. I spot a policeman and ask for directions. He is only too happy to help. If only my Spanish was better. During the course of this trip I discover that the local cops are very friendly and helpful to tourists. After a while my energy levels have dropped and I decide to call it a night. I gingerly attempt some photography down some dodgy looking side streets but decide that caution is a good idea and embark on the long walk home. For some reason I can never bring myself to take a cab no matter how cheap they are.
Having reached the hotel I venture to the rear courtyard and slop down in one of their comfy armchairs. Exhausted and hungry I order a Pina Colada and a local Pork sandwich (delish). A local band has started playing and a gentle Caribbean breeze is blowing through. It is a beautiful moment. I move on to the first of many Mojitos for the trip. As my energy levels wane completely I call it a night.
Day 2 – Havana: I wake just in time to watch the sun rise over Havana. It is a beautiful sight. One or two fishing ships are in the harbour and the early risers have started their day. The bright orange colour of the sunrise offers a glimpse into the heat to come.
After a generous breakfast in the crowded dining room, I reluctantly check out, leave my bags with the porters and head out for a full day of sight-seeing. As I walk down the Malecón it is already a decidedly warm temperature. The old dilapidated mansions fill me with a little sadness. Imagine seeing these at the height of the golden age. At least the locals have a roof over their heads. I turn down Paseo del Prado and head towards Plaza Vieja, the old town square – a large open square with examples of colonial architecture and little else. I move on to Plaza de Armas, passing a busking Son band. I potter around Habana Vieja for a while before heading to Plaza de la Cathedral, a square named for the 18th century cathedral. It is a more charming and charismatic space and has a more vibrant feel. I move on to one of Hemingway’s old haunts, the Bodguita del Medio, a terrific looking hole in the wall bar/restaurant. I contemplate having lunch day but make do with a Mojito. Alas it is mass produced and disappointing.
The sun and walking has me exhausted. I rest in front of the Opera House to watch the world go by and attempt to take a classic photo of an old car, but it’s difficult. The light isn’t right and they are moving too fast. I decide to hike back, once again too cheap to cough up for a cab. Thankfully I arrive back at the hotel and head straight to the rear courtyard for a couple more Mojitos while I write some postcards. It’s early in the trip to write postcards but my experience is postcards have a disturbing tendency of arriving after I return from trips. A glorious cooling sea breeze washes away my heat stress.
Tonight I join a two week tour of Cuba. I grab my bags and walk the two blocks to the substandard tour hotel, the Hotel Victoria. Amazingly this hotel was offered to me for my pre-tour stay at exactly the same nightly rate as the Nacional. They have to be joking. After a shower I walk out to join the locals at the Malecón to watch the setting sun. I can understand why so many of them come out every evening.
As the sun sets I return to the hotel to meet the members of my touring party. I have joined Intrepid for this tour. We are a small group of 12, mostly Aussies – 6 ‘youngish’, 6 ‘oldish’. Our tour guide for the trip is a young man called Valeri (pronounced Baleri). Dinner tonight is in Habana Vieja, at restaurant called El Guajirito (now called El Tablao de Pancho). The place is large and popular, which is odd as there are no signs anywhere. I suspect they business from taxi and tour guide ‘recommendations’. The waitresses are scantily clad cowgirls, the atmosphere great and the food is quite good for Cuba.
Day 3 – Baracoa: An amazingly early start this morning as we leave for the airport at 4am There is only one flight to Baracoa a day and today’s flight is at 8am. The small plane has its full quota of 38 passengers, most of whom are getting some lost shut-eye. After two uneventful hours we touch down on one of the world’s shortest landing strip. The baggage retrieval system at Baracoa airport is a farce. We are herded into a small room and our luggage is thrown in with us, starting a ludicrous scramble for our bags. We then jump on the back of a truck, which will serve as our transport in this part of Cuba. Arriving in central Baracoa we are deposited at our various homestays. The owner of my particular casa seems nice and she serves us a belated breakfast of ham, Cuban cheese (weird), bread, eggs, fruit and juices.
We reassemble afterwards for an orientation walk through Baracoa. It is steamy hot. We climb a hill to the El Castillo hotel for a great view and some cheap cocktails. Then we embark on a trip to Playa Blanca, White Beach. The walk is a long, spirit sapping trek. Walking along the coarse black sands of Playa Nera, we turn inwards through the trees. We pass Rio Miel, some fishing huts and a ridiculously narrow, winding, dual direction walkway. We visit the home of a woman who makes local chocolate and coconut treats. Back on the trail we seemed to have gained a few locals, a couple of whom are expert coconut tree climbers and we get to sample some fresh coconut juice. Eventually we reach Playa Blanca, which is a disappointingly miniscule affair, although the swim is very pleasant. The walk back is torturous for me, as I have overpacked and am carrying what amounts to a small child. One of the great things about On The Go Cuba is that whilst they make suggestions as to what excursions you could do, they do not list them as optional extras. You can do them at your own leisure and even better still, Valeri takes us to these places in his free time, so there is no added cost and we get a guide.
Later that night after dinner we visit the local Casa de la Trova, a place where live music is played and drinks served. Every Cuban city/town has at least one, and every night is party night. The cheap Cuban drinks flow and the music fills the night air. What a great tradition.
Day 4 – Baracoa: The big adventure for today is a picnic at Yumuri River. So back onto the back of the truck we go. On the way we stop at a village where Valeri negotiates with a local for our lunch upon our return. Before long we arrive at a bridge where we board several small boats and head off down the river. We are joined by a local guy who’s helping carry our Esky. He is amazingly cut and don’t the girls know it. A small barking dog follows us, to the point of swimming behind the boats. Eventually the river dries up and we ditch the boats and go off on a hike across a range of terrains a lot of which is pebbles and rock. My sandals are ill suited to this kind of trekking and the going is tough. After a long hike we reach a secluded clearing whereupon we indulge in drinks and nibblies. Mr muscles has disappeared and soon returns with coconuts and mammeys, a local fruit.
Soon we are going back the way we came. I am impressed with the older members of the group, who have kept up with us very well. Then it’s back on the boats and back to the bridge where we are once again besotted by locals asking literally for the clothes off our back. Cuba as a nation is very much a third world country and its people do struggle, bless them. When one visits Cuba, the general advice is to bring pens, soap or spare clothing to donate. I can understand the clothing but soap and pens? Trying to keep my luggage to a minimum, I have brought pens to give the kids.
We arrive back at the village for lunch and we are presented with a spectacular sight. Upon tables set up on the beach we see rice, yams, tropical fruit and more small grilled lobsters than you could poke a stick at. Lunch is, as it looks, quite superb.
Later that evening we are given a salsa lesson by a local expert. Some of us enjoys it so much they have signed on for extra lessons the next day. We round off the day after dinner with another visit to the Casa de la Trova, with more drinking and meeting even crazier locals.
Day 5 – Baracoa: We have a later start today so I take the opportunity to look around Baracoa for a while. Our excursion for the day takes us for another picnic, this time to Rio Duaba. So we load up the Esky, jump in the back of the truck and head off. Valeri has called ahead to arrange our very early dinner. As we reach our picnic site we see two old guys cooking something under a makeshift tent. Inside the tent we see two suckling pigs on a spit. Valeri has done very well again. Apparently they were just going to do one but were convinced that we would devour two. He knows us so well. So we drink and attempt to swim. The surface under the water is made up of large, smooth rocks and pebbles and makes wading in rather uncomfortable. Add to this a very strong current and we have one interesting swim. Some of us have jumped in a hundred metres upstream and ride the current down. It’s fun but you can only do it so many times.
One of the things I had hoped to see here in Baracoa were the Polymita snails, little, multi-coloured snails indigenous to the area. I venture into the bushes in a desperate attempt to see one to no avail. There is, however, a very large sow and a piglet who have come sniffing around our food. Not sure if they are related to our upcoming dinner, which is spectacular. Along with the suckling pigs we have congri, fruits etc but for some of us we concentrate solely on the pork. In fact some of us just stand at the table eating straight from the carcasses. We do our best but we still have some leftovers, which is packed up for some of our homestay hosts.
Upon our return to Baracoa central, we meet immediately in the main plaza to finish off the remaining rum. We are joined by the coconut man from our first day here. He’s taken with one of our girls. I ask him about the snails and he says they are only found in the mountains. He then goes home and returns with his collection of shells. I think he wants to sell them to us but i don’t expect Australian customs would be to keen on that idea. It’s been another great day in Baracoa.
To be continued…